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The Bolshoi’s Swans of Steel

Surviving revolution after revolution, the ballet company has long served as a mirror for Russia's obfuscating statecraft.

Ian Gavan / Getty

The language of ballet is one of dramatic gesture: In La Bayadère, after the beautiful temple dancer is bitten by a poisonous snake, she communicates her resignation to death by throwing her hands up in the air; when Giselle discovers her lover is betrothed, she begins to dance wildly, eventually dying of broken-hearted exhaustion; in Swan Lake, when Odette learns that Siegfried’s promised himself to her evil twin, her arms beat frantically in protest of her entrapment in swan form; and when a masked attacker threw a jar of sulfuric acid in the face of Sergei Yurevitch Filin, director of the Bolshoi Ballet, he reached for the snow on the ground, frantically rubbing it into his burning skin while crying out for help.

The vivid physicality of classical dance has always lent itself to tales of deceit and double-crossing. At the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, one of the oldest and most revered ballet institutions in the world, with 3,000 employees and 250 dancers, the art apes the corrupt administrative apparatus surrounding it—or so argues Simon Morrison, a professor at Princeton, in his new history of the company, Bolshoi Confidential. The book begins by recounting the attack on Filin, which took place on January 7, 2013, and then moves back in time in order to unpack the “secrets of the Russian ballet,” and thus, the secrets of Russia itself. The history of the Bolshoi, Morrison argues, “travels hand in hand with the history of the nation.”

W. W. Norton, 512 pp, $35

Ballet’s roots are aristocratic and French. In the nineteenth century, it was an entertainment for the nouveau riche, while the lingua franca of its steps—they’re essentially the same no matter where you go in the world—aspired to the universal ideals of Enlightenment philosophes. Ballet represented everything about the West that Russians have historically rejected and reviled. This fact did not escape the notice of the Bolshevik revolutionaries, who rightly complained that of all artistic mediums, ballet retained “the largest quantity of ‘birth marks’ of the exploitative society.” Yet in a paradoxical turn of events, ballet has laid claim to the most clichéd concepts of spiritual patriotism: the Russian soul. When opening the Bolshoi to the public after a whopping 760-million-dollar renovation in 2011, then-president Dmitry Medvedev declared “Our country is very big, of course. At the same time, the number of symbols that unite everybody, those national treasures, the so-called national brands, are limited.” The Bolshoi, which Medvedev calls Russia’s “secret weapon,” counts as one of its strongest.

Morrison turns to the past in order to unpack the conundrum of the Bolshoi within the enigma-wrapped, mystery-obscured riddle of the Russian state. We learn that Russian ballet, which sets itself apart from the established syntax of classical dance “as an assemblage, an orientation, and an ideal,” was pioneered after the Napoleonic Wars. Cossack dances from the fields were imported to the imperial stage as patriotic art, mixing with the steps of ballet in order to form a distinct style. In Moscow, dancers at the Bolshoi came to embody an expressive, nationalistic idiom of dance, one that was opposed to the aristocratic refinement of their counterparts in French-influenced Saint Petersburg.

This is where ballet starts making sense as a changeling art adopted as Russia’s own. In describing his first experience with Western society, philosopher Alexander Herzen contrasted it to the St. Petersburg government, which “wants everything to tremble before it…it desires not only power but the theatrical display of it.” Outside of the army, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of the disciplined body than the ballet dancer’s, and the Bolshoi troupe was expected to be a model of discipline, soldiers of art. (For one performance, Tsar Nicholas I gave the ballerinas real weapons to train with so their battle scenes would look more authentic.) This legacy continued well into the twentieth century: Critic Edwin Denby wrote of the Bolshoi’s first-ever visit to the US in 1959 that its dancers in Swan Lake “look like women of great weight specially trained to move; they look prepared for immolation.”

The early ministers of Soviet culture quickly decided this language of the body could illumine Russian backwardness in the larger program of kul’turnost: the elevation of cultural literacy for the average comrade. Overnight, the Bolshoi transformed itself into a temple dedicated to the New Man. “Oh yes, the revolution was terrible,” dancer Anastasia Abramova told the New York Times in 1923. “It interrupted the ballet school for three whole weeks.” Morrison draws the astute parallel between the Bolshevik aftermath and the years following the French Revolution: As an orchestration of energy, dance provides a way for post-revolutionary society to dream of its perfect utopia.

At this point, it’s difficult to overstate how political the Bolshoi became over the course of the twentieth century. At the theater, Stalin had a private, reputedly bulletproof viewing box covered in red velvet curtains off stage left, replete with a secret entrance. Ballet heroines would be co-opted by Communist aesthetics, as testified by the names of the old Soviet hair salons—“Raymonda,” “Paquita,” “Giselle.” Llewellyn E. Thompson, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, claimed to have seen Swan Lake 132 times during his seven years of work there.

Swan Lake, with its Manichean black and white, has the most political of auras. During any government transition, the old Bolshoi production—four acts, three hours, a happy ending—is put on loop, as was done when Leonid Brezhniv died in 1982, or when Communist hard-liners tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. As recently as 2014, ballerinas in Odessa performed an excerpt of the ballet amongst tanks in order to protest Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In this part of the world, when the swans are on, everyone knows something’s underfoot in Moscow.

All of this makes for good, even great, fodder. Bolshoi Confidential is a 512-page-long history that includes sex scandals, double-suicide pacts, bribery, arson, executions, prostitution rings, embezzlement, starving orphans, dead cats in lieu of flowers, and ballerinas refusing to shave their armpits (“I don’t understand anything about the ballet,” wrote Chekhov, “all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses”). As implied by the book’s title, criminals are no strangers to the theater’s corridors. The Bolshoi’s “past is one of remarkable achievements interrupted, and even fueled, by periodic bouts of madness,” writes Morrison. He illustrates the madness well, often doing so with an understated sense of fate’s ironies.

The story loses its thread, however, in a forest of facts, the accumulation of which, no matter how interesting, doesn’t always make history. Sometimes the details lift off the page, arresting the narrative flow in order to reveal the symbolic aura of an act or milieu; often they don’t. In the 71-page chapter on censorship, for example, I counted 108 individual players alone, most of whom make brief, two-paragraph appearances. I don’t know why we’re told about Catherine the Great’s dissection of her deceased husband’s heart, the two-dozen lovers taken up by an English diplomat’s wife in 1783, or the Bolshevik orgies in which pools of blood mixed with puddles of wine. Ballet first started being performed onstage as divertissement, or “distraction,” to the serious, weighty narratives of grand opera. The dances were visually pleasing, sometimes sexually stimulating, but ultimately meaningless aesthetic palate cleansers. As the toll of scandals and debaucheries climbed while reading, I began to feel that this was the implicit position of the book—that dance was an ultimately empty, dilatory pastime. The real drama was happening off stage.

Like a whodunit, the Bolshoi Confidential starts with a crime; unlike a whodunit, the crime is solved in the introduction. One of Filin’s own dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, confesssed to arranging the acid attack on the Bolshoi’s director; it was an alleged act of revenge after his girlfriend, Anzhelina Vorontsova, didn’t land the starring roles in Swan Lake. From the start, Morrison lights up the Bolshoi in the red glow of the tabloids. The book reads like a detective novel in which the operative McGuffin would be the Russian affinity for deviousness and pliés, but I tend to think that the history of any institution probably sports a similar darkling underbelly.

It’s easy to harp on the Bolshoi’s criminal activity. Last year, HBO released a documentary, Bolshoi Babylon, with a similar focus on the attack, its makers claiming no particular interest in ballet but great interest in its practitioners. Here, Filin comes across as a rather shady character—though perhaps this is because after undergoing 32 surgeries and counting, he now covers his mutilated eyes with designer sunglasses. But in the film, one of the dancers interviewed pleads “let’s not turn this into stories about sex.” The defense came too late. Soon after the scandal, while publicists desperately tried to clean up the “post-acid” image of the company, the ex-principal Anastasia Volochkova—who was dismissed for her weight and subsequently worked as a rep for Putin’s United Russia—claimed that the Bolshoi arranged for “parties” matching its dancers with its oligarchs.

Morrison defends his approach: “More is known about the scandals than the glories of the Moscow stage, because the scandals generated heaps of documents,” he writes. “The glories…inspired nothing more specific than poetic tributes.” This condition is not at all limited to the Bolshoi, as any dance historian knows who has poked around in an archive. What is specific to the Bolshoi is that a good portion of the files have been “lost,” a fact which goes unmentioned in the book. Records of the USSR’s first fifty years were released in the 1990s, and a book about their contents seems to come out every year in the US, but this is, by my count, the fifth book to be published in English which discloses what they say about Russian ballet. Instead of probing these sources—which tend, per Soviet persuasion, to give a flag-waving version of history that effaced the subjectivity of its citizens—Morrison follows rather than problematizes the contours of its ideological shadows, reading very little between the lines so as to imagine the lives of the individuals behind them.

As an art form, classical ballet is strict and unforgiving. To enjoy it is to spend a transcendent evening apart from the material conditions of society, no matter how gruesome. This might explain why in Russia, it has such a devout following, continuing as the place where “the love of millions was united,” during Stalin’s reign. In a far cry from the takeaway of Bolshoi Babylon, principal Maria Alexandrova told the New York Times about her participation in the documentary: “I wanted people to understand that, at the end of the day, it’s a wonderful place.”

Thanks to the snow he rubbed in his face, Filin retains 50 percent of the vision in his left eye, a precious necessity in the ballet world. He’s lost his title as artistic director, but has been put in charge of an effort to foster new choreographers in-house. Yet the drama rages on. In June, Dmitrichenko, the engineer of the acid-attack, was released after three years of his six year sentence for good behavior, and he says he wants to go back to work. Revising much of what he said under oath, he no longer claims he’s guilty: “I didn’t during the court proceedings, and I still don’t.” The statement is supported by 300 Bolshoi employees who signed a petition addressed to Putin after the indictment. Vorontsova, who would appear to be dead center in the gyre of scandals, has remained strangely silent. At the trial, his lawyer defended the act as “a simple warning run amok,” writes the New York Times. After his release, Dmitrichenko denied the attack even happened, pointing to Filin’s relative health. In Russia, it seems that confessions shouldn’t necessarily be taken at their word.

Meanwhile, the Bolshoi has decided it’s the right time to celebrate, commissioning a book to commemorate the institution’s 240th anniversary by an author who is largely believed—at least in the West—to have faked Shostakovich’s memoirs. “Russia has always been good at this,” Morrison writes, “generating multiple narratives, conceiving competing realities, insinuating that we might never know the truth, that there might not be any truth at all.” The Kremlin stands as an ideological shell of what it once was, but its recent tactics of disinformation has required that the White House consistently disprove rumors of a new Cold War. “What you can be sure that Russia will not do is tell the truth” explained U.N. ambassador Samantha Power recently. By all appearances, Putin’s current strategy effectively turns all the world into a self-justifying stage. The Bolshoi operates as the stage for such a world; as one dancer puts it, “if the Bolshoi is sick, it is because Russia is sick too.”

Many consider the 1991 coup to be Russia’s equivalent of a Velvet or “Gentle” Revolution. It was, however, precisely such a transition—or the lack thereof—which meant that old totalitarian infrastructures were allowed to keep going strong. Morrison describes the thuggish Bolshoi as having survived revolution after revolution because the “narrative respects its own laws of storytelling,” the struggle time and again the perfection of ballet’s eternal laws. “To dance, after all, is to condition the body, and with it the mind, to let go,” he writes. Yet it is this very inability to let go—to let anything go—that has divided what used to unite the love of millions. One hopes that in the next chapter of the theater’s history, the Bolshoi won’t hold up such an accurate mirror to the smoke of its country’s politics.